Great reporting on a GOP kitten fight

The New York Times' blog The Caucus reports on the juicy conflict between the presidential campaigns of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback that is steeped in religious issues and language. This story has made the rounds in various formats, but this is the best coverage of the spat largely because reporter Sarah Wheaton took the time and effort to cut and paste large sections of the e-mails from the row.

It's important that the story has not made the print edition, and I don't think it needs to be there.

This is where news organizations' blogs can shine. This isn't front-page news by any measure. It's two second-tier (or third) candidates squabbling over issues that don't directly relate to a person's qualifications for the presidency. But it is a fascinating battle between candidates who would attempt to inherit the mantle that President Bush carried in the 2000 campaign as the candidate of the Religious Right. So take a look at this:

A little e-mail battle brewing over the past few days between Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, is escalating into an endless Punch-and-Judy show. And like spellbound children, we're captivated by every volley.

It all started with an e-mail written by the Rev. Tim Rude, a Huckabee supporter, asking two Brownback supporters to consider switching sides. The longish e-mail contained some typical pitches, but there was also this:

Huckabee is an evangelical. He has not learned how to speak to evangelicals; i.e. Bush 41 & 43. He is one of us. I know Senator Brownback converted to Roman Catholicism in 2002. Frankly, as a recovering Catholic myself, that is all I need to know about his discernment when compared to the Governor's. I don't if this fact is widely known among evangelicals who are supporting Brownback. [sic.]

As they say, them's fightin' words.

One additional detail that I wish the NYT had included for context is what Noam Scheiber reported in The New Republic in December 2006 on Brownback's conversion to Catholicism:

There are less flattering explanations as well. Brownback had always had a weakness for elite societies. He applied twice to be a White House Fellow before being admitted. When he got to Congress, Rolling Stone has reported, he sought admission to a small "cell" overseen by "The Fellowship," an organization of evangelical elites. Catholicism in general, and McCloskey's flock in particular, may have been just another upscale fraternity to pledge.

Nor is it easy to ignore how Brownback's conversion has given him a beachhead in each of the two most powerful communities on the religious right. Even Congdon concedes there was some skepticism in the pews of TBC when news of the conversion made the rounds. "I fielded a lot of questions from suspicious people who thought that was just a political conversion," he says.

I am not saying this is the reason Brownback converted -- the article lists a more plausible reason just before these paragraphs -- but it might help explain why the Huckabee supporter would bring up Brownback's conversion as a political ax to grind.

There is also the aspect that the staffs of both candidates are using religious undertones to demean the other side. Here is Huckabee's campaign manager Chip Saltsman, in response to the Brownback campaign's response to an apology for the original e-mail, courtesy of the NYT:

It's time for Sam Brownback to stop whining and start showing some of the Christian character he seems to always find lacking in others. He has attacked Governor Huckabee for something that a Huckabee supporter said in an email sent to two individuals. The person who originated the email has apologized and is not a member of the Huckabee staff. For Brownback to claim that the Governor "owes him an apology" is nonsense and indicates that if Brownback is going to fall to pieces every time a supporter of the Governor says something he doesn't like, he clearly isn't tough enough to be President. The Governor strongly disavowed the statement by the supporter, but that wasn't enough for Brownback. He continued to cry about it. The irony is that unlike Senator Brownback, I have been a Catholic my entire life, as have several of the senior staff members in the Huckabee campaign. Governor Huckabee enjoys strong support from Catholics and for good cause. If Senator Brownback wants to start apologizing for inappropriate things said, perhaps he could pull the "beam out of his own eye before taking the speck out of someone else's" by apologizing for the website 'Baptists for Brownback' that states that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Fred Thompson and others are 'Hell bound.'

The battle goes on.

Perhaps it's time to write the story that says that the two conservative evangelical candidates running in the 2008 Republican primary are close to writing themselves out of the race due to their silly snipping? Does this squabble show signs of serious cracks in the Religious Right, or is this just petty bickering that shows the immaturity of the two campaigns and the lack of adult supervision?

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